A Perfect Example
by John Frost
The front story: At a filming of an episode of the BBC television program That’s Life in 1988, a white haired, nearly bald, slightly hunched over old man sat in the front row. This man was Sir Nicholas George Winton. The program host, Esther Rantzen, showed a scrapbook that Sir Winton had compiled of his activities during the 1930s which chronicled the rescue of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in 1938 in the lead-up to Kristallnacht, the Nazis effort to exterminate the Jews. The host then asked whether anybody in the audience owed their lives to Sir Winton, and if so, to stand. More than two dozen people surrounding Sir Winton rose and applauded. Then the entire audience rose and began to applaud, to wave and to cheer in appreciation for this unseemly old gentleman. He was old, and had to be wheeled into his seat on a wheelchair (that’s why he could not stand with everyone else). (I’m tearing up as I write this as I can feel the emotions. That’s what writing will do for you.) Sir Winton died July 1, 2015 at the age of 105 but his humanitarian story will live in the hearts of so many, and, I hope, in the hearts of the 606 members of Rotary 29 who read this Reflection.
The back story: (This is taken from the biography available on Wikipedia.) “Shortly before Christmas 1938, Sir Winton was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. He decided instead to visit Prague and help Martin Blake, who was in Prague as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, then in the process of being occupied by Germany, and had called Winton to ask him to assist in Jewish welfare work. Winton single-handedly established an organization to aid children from Jewish families at risk falling into the hands of the Nazis on the aftermath of Kristallnacht in Nazi-ruling Germany. In the wake of Kristallnacht, the British House of Commons approved a measure to allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, provided they had a place to stay and a warranty of 50 Pounds Sterling (a pretty sum in those days) was deposited for their eventual return to their own country. Sir Winton set up his office at the dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square and went about his humanitarian efforts to rescue as many children as possible.
“An important obstacle was getting official permission to cross the Netherlands, as the children were to embark on the ferry at Hook Point of Holland. After Kristallnacht in November, 1938, the Dutch government officially closed its borders to any Jewish refugees. The border guards searched for them and returned any found to Germany, despite the horrors of Kristallnacht being well known.
“Sir Winton persisted and succeeded, thanks to the guarantees he had obtained from Britain. After the first train, the process of crossing the Netherlands went smoothly. Sir Winton ultimately found homes in Britain for 669 children, many of those parents would perish in the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mother worked with him to place the children in homes and later hostels. Throughout the summer of 1939, he placed photographs of the children in Picture Post seeking families to accept them. He also wrote to US politicians such as Roosevelt, asking them to take more children. He said that two thousand more might have been saved if they had helped, but only Sweden took any besides those sent to Britain. The last group of 250, scheduled to leave Prague on September 1, 1939 were unable to depart. With Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the same day, the Second World War had begun. Of the children due to leave on that train, only two survived the war. Sir Winton remained in Prague for some time after the War began but eventually had to return to Britain.”
Later, Sir Winton joined the Royal Air Force and served in Europe until the end of the war.
Much later, in 2015, BBC News began to trace the original 669 who were rescued. Lord knows what happened to the 370 who could not be found.
Great article John. Very moving. Thanks, Pat